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Jobs from hell: most companies treat their employees reasonably well, but some employers are just out to exploit their workers.

Many Canadians try to buy clothing with a "Made in Canada" label, hoping to avoid supporting companies that use exploited sweatshop workers in the developing world. Unfortunately, that "Made in Canada" label is no guarantee a garment has not been made under illegal conditions--here at home.

Roxana Ng is a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. In 1999, she published a study of the working conditions of people in the garment industry in Toronto. The workers are almost all immigrant women from Asia who sew garments in their own homes. They sew for sub-contractors who supply clothing wholesalers and retailers.

The women are paid by the number of garments they produce: about $3 for a shirt, between $4 and $5 for a dress. They provide their own sewing machines and pay for the electricity to run them.

Among the women in Dr. Ng's study, the average hourly earnings was $7--less than the minimum legislated by the Ontario Employment Standards Act ($7.15 an hour). These home workers get no benefits or paid vacations. If they start to produce at a higher speed, the subcontractor cuts the price paid for each unit.

This employment system is illegal, but the women are almost powerless to do anything about it. Most speak little English or French and know nothing of the laws that might protect them. They are isolated from one another so cannot organize. And, most are desperate for the little money they earn.

There are thought to be about 8,000 of these home workers in Toronto, with thousands more struggling to make a living this way in Montreal, Vancouver, and Winnipeg. Some of the garments made this way appear on the racks of high-end, designer clothing stores while others end up in discount stores such as Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart is Canada's biggest retailer with 240 stores and about $9 billion in annual sales. Current plans call for one new Wal-Mart store to open in Canada every three weeks. Measured by sales, Wal-Mart is the biggest company in the world. It got that big with a simple business plan--buy products for the lowest cost possible and then sell them at a lower price than anybody else.

The key to this strategy is low wages. The people who make the products Wal-Mart sells are paid a pittance (as little as five cents an hour in China). The low wages rule also applies to the people who work in Wal-Mart stores in Canada. Sam Walton, who founded the company in 1962, boasted that wages at Wal-Mart have always been "as little as we could get by with at the time." That usually works out to 20 to 30 percent less than wages paid elsewhere in the retail trade.

So, why work for a company that treats its employees badly? The answer is that many Wal-Mart workers are immigrants and older people who otherwise would have trouble finding a job; the company is providing an income to hard-to-place workers. And, with 100 million customers a week, offering great selection at low prices is hugely popular with shoppers.

However, according to The Economist: "At any moment, Wal-Mart faces about 8,000 lawsuits. (Most) of these are personal-injury claims from employees." But, there are also legal actions over allegedly failing to pay overtime and provide work breaks. The company now has to defend itself in the world's biggest civil-rights lawsuit. The case could include 1.6 million past and present female Wal-Mart employees, alleging the company routinely discriminates against women in pay, promotion, and training.

Trade unions have tried to organize Wal-Mart employees. So far, the company has resisted every attempt. In 2002, ten meat cutters at a store in Texas successfully formed a union local. Wal-Mart's response was to close the department. The company plays a hard game with union organizers but not as hard as some.

In the late 1990s, the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) tried to sign up the employees of Baron Metal Industries of Woodbridge, Ontario. In 2001, the Ontario Labour Relations Board ruled that Baron used dirty tactics in defeating the union drive. The Board said there was strong evidence the company hired two crime gang members to threaten the lives of union supporters.

That strong-arm stuff was fairly common 50 years ago, but it's illegal now. Still, the USWA says that Baron's "conduct is increasingly representative of the tactics used by employers in Ontario to resist their employees' desire to join a union."

SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES:

1. Through a classroom discussion have students relate their own work experiences--good and bad. Have a team of students summarize the experiences and send a report to your province's labour minister.

2. In August 2004, the Quebec Labour Relations Board certified a union bargaining unit at a Wal-Mart store in Jonquiere, starting the process that might lead to a first union contract. Union drives are also underway at Wal-Mart stores in Saskatchewan, Ontario, and British Columbia. Open a clipping file on these attempts to organize Wal-Mart workers and periodically review its contents.

EMPLOYEES FROM HELL

Workers steal--not all of them, but enough to cause some companies to go under. The Retail Council of Canada says that three out of ten business failures are attributed to employee theft. The Council says that light-fingered workers lift $3 million per day in goods and money. Security experts hired to stop the theft have what they call the 10-10-80 rule. This says that 10 percent of employees will not steal regardless of circumstances, 10 percent will steal at every opportunity, and 80 percent can go either way, waiting to see how serious their employer is about combatting theft and weighing the risks.

One who thought the risk worth taking is Nick Lysyk. The Edmonton bank manager stole $16.3 million over a five-year period. in August 2004, Mr. Lysyk pled guilty to the theft; he used the money to support a lavish lifestyle he couldn't afford on his salary.

The accounting company Ernst & Young--it's often called in to investigate employee theft--says the number of crooks may be as high as one in five. Human Resources professor Monica Belcourt at York University puts total losses to padded expense accounts, book cooking, and theft of goods and cash at more than one percent of annual revenue.

FACT FILE

According to an international job satisfaction study, 40.1% of Canadians are "very satisfied" with their working conditions, compared with 53.9% in Denmark and only 13.5% in Portugal.

Websites

Home worker Report (Dr Ng)--http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/ depts/sese/csew/nall/res/06homeworkers.htm

Wal-Mart Watch--http://www.walmartwatch.com/index.cfm
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Title Annotation:Work--Employers
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Oct 1, 2004
Words:1105
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